Alberta's rural library systems plead for more provincial funds as inflation erodes budgets

The seven regional library systems are funded by provincial grants and levies charged to library boards and municipalities.  (Shutterstock - image credit)
The seven regional library systems are funded by provincial grants and levies charged to library boards and municipalities. (Shutterstock - image credit)

Alberta's seven library systems, which provide shared services for smaller rural libraries, are asking the provincial government to increase their funding for the first time in seven years.

The systems provide book purchasing, digital resources, inter-library loans, delivery, cataloguing, and IT support to libraries outside Alberta's large and mid-sized cities.

They are funded by provincial grants and levies charged to library boards and municipalities.

While the government hasn't cut its portion of funding, the amount has been frozen since 2015. But inflationary pressures are making it harder for libraries to balance the books.

"When you don't receive increases in funding for seven-plus years, your buying power is reduced," said James MacDonald, executive director of the Northern Lights Library System.

"You just can't make that dollar stretch quite as far as you'd like it to."

NLLS is based in Elk Point, about 210 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. It supports 49 libraries in northeastern Alberta and includes towns like Cold Lake, Vegreville, Wainwright and Lamont.

MacDonald said provincial grants used to fund 50 per cent of operations — now it only covers around a third.

NLLS and the other six regional library systems will present a united front in a letter to be sent to Rebecca Schulz, Alberta's new minister of municipal affairs. They are urging her to increase library funding to at least to meet the rate of inflation. Libraries that are members of the regional systems are also dealing with budget challenges.

Municipal library boards in the large and mid-size cities are advocating for more funding. Alberta continues to base its grants using population numbers from 2016, which hurts libraries in cities that have seen their populations rise.

Schulz hasn't indicated if a funding increase is under consideration for the next provincial budget, expected in February. A statement from her press secretary reiterated the funding the government already provides — $30.5 million annually to over 200 municipal library boards and the seven library systems.

Alberta is projecting a $13.2 billion surplus by the end of the current fiscal year.

Keeping up with inflation

In the meantime, costs continue to go up. The price of books, licences for electronic resources and utilities have increased.

Library systems used to be able to access the provincial government's courier system to deliver inter-library loans. That was scaled back three years ago, meaning library systems had to buy their own vans. The high cost of fuel is now eating up their budgets.

The Peace Library System covers 46 libraries in northwest Alberta, including those in Slave Lake, High Level and Peace River.

Chief executive officer Louisa Robison is facing the same budgetary constraints. The PLS covers the largest area in Alberta but has the second smallest population — a big factor in a funding formula based on a per-capita model.

The costs of fuelling the system's two vans has nearly doubled in the past year, she said.

Something always needs to get cut before she can introduce anything new.

"I would love to be able to hire a couple of people to do more services for our libraries, but I just don't have the funds for it," Robison said.

Supporting rural communities

PLS didn't raise its levy this year but NLLS requested a 1.5 per cent increase, the first in three years.

Tim MacPhee, the mayor of Vegreville, said town council agreed to the increase. He said it is costing more for the board to offer the same services as last year.

"I imagine they're struggling and trying to find more efficiencies in the way they operate," he said. "When it comes down to it, funding levels need to go up just to pay for the cost of inflation."

MacDonald and Robison said their member libraries provide services for children and seniors, meeting spaces for residents and are often the sole source of stable internet in the community.

MacDonald said libraries are "essential social infrastructure" for rural communities. The government's talk of supporting rural communities gives him hope.

"One clear way to support rural Alberta is to support library services," he said.